Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychic Detectives

The Fugitive

In November 1971, John List shot his wife, mother and three children.  Laying them out on sleeping bags in the ballroom of his New Jersey mansion, he turned on church music, left letters of confession to his minister, and took off.  He said later that he'd fully expected to be caught immediately, but to his surprise, he managed to start life over in Colorado.  He met another woman, got a job, joined a church and took on a new identity.

John List (Corbis)
Back in New Jersey, the case didn't die.  The 13th anniversary of the monstrous crimes came and went, and suddenly there was renewed interest.  Jeffrey Paul Hummel, a detective assigned to it in 1985.  He worked on the Major Crimes Unit for the prosecutor's office in Union County, New Jersey, and he spent a lot of time learning about List.  "Many in law enforcement presumed he was deceased," Hummel said. "However, I maintained he was alive because no evidence had ever surfaced to the contrary."

He was aware that the composite sketch of the age-progressed fugitive, published nationwide, had failed to turn up a good lead.  Yet because Hummel found the crime so repulsive, he was not about to give up, so he decided to consult a psychic with a reputation for helping law enforcement with tough cases.

"In May of 1985," he said, "I became aware of a psychic living in Ocean County, New Jersey, identified as Elizabeth Lerner.  Armed with crime scene photos, I spent about two hours with Ms. Lerner, who offered her feelings and impressions while touching the rear side of the photographs."  While Hummel received no concrete leads in tracking List down, he did get information that in retrospect was surprisingly accurate.

Lerner said that List was alive and had not traveled by plane, as presumed from where he'd left his car, but by train or bus. (He had.)

There was a new woman in his life and he had some connection with Baltimore, Maryland.  (He had married his new wife in Baltimore.)

He had fled to the southwest. (He went to Colorado.)

There was some significance with Florida or Virginia. (List ended up in Virginia, which is where he was ultimately arrested.)

Lerner also made a prediction that gave Hummel something to do.  List, she said, would visit the family gravesite on his birthday (September 17).

Hummel got permission to conduct surveillance in Westfield's Fairview Cemetery on September 16, 1985.  Dressed in dark clothing, he prepared to sit outside all night on a hill overlooking the graves.  Nothing happened that night, so he repeated his actions the following night, also to no avail.  List did not arrive.

In fact, he was not caught until 1989, after America's Most Wanted aired the case and showed a bust of what the man might now look like.  A former neighbor called in the tip that led the police right to him.

America's Most Wanted logo
Although the psychic failed to offer a lead that would close the case, it was clear that she "saw" a few details that were accurate.  A psychologist who assisted Frank Bender with the sculpture of List had surmised from logic that he would marry again and that he'd be fairly far afield from New Jersey, so those weren't tough to guess.  However, the fact that List had returned to Baltimore to be married surprised a lot of people.  Yet it's nevertheless troubling that the psychic felt so certain that List would visit the graves.  He had never done so and had never intended to.  That life was behind him.  Perhaps Lerner had said this because killers often do, so it was a guess that anyone could have made who knows about criminal behavior, but because the officers took her seriously, the suggestion did waste police resources.

In this case, both psychics and skeptics would claim a victory.  See, she was right, but so what?  She didn't offer any significant information and she was also wrong about some things.

Let's look at what the debunkers of psychic phenomena tend to say about psychic sleuths in general.

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